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  • Working in the Wings: New Perspectives on Theatre History and Labor ed. by Elizabeth A. Osborne, Christine Woodworth
  • Christin Essin
Working in the Wings: New Perspectives on Theatre History and Labor. Edited by Elizabeth A. Osborne and Christine Woodworth. Theatre in the Americas series. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015; pp. 264.

Coeditors Elizabeth Osborne and Christine Woodworth acknowledge that the impulse behind their anthology’s concentration on theatrical work, workers, and working-class audiences resulted partially from the recent turmoil of the US economy and reinvigorated dialogues around labor politics that followed. But more importantly, they assert, the assembled essays strategically foreground work and labor as organizing principles to recover historical subjects and processes of art-making typically hidden from public view and too often ignored by theatre scholarship. Their introduction establishes their motivation “to reveal the obscured or concealed facets” of theatrical craftsmanship, from the material conditions of workers’ labor that affect their creative processes to the ways in which their labor shapes their subjectivities and “overarching cultural narratives” (11–12). Certainly, the collection presents a diverse range of previously under-examined subjects that span the US theatrical past, from the building of the Washington Theatre in 1804 to the collaborations of currently working artists like Les Waters and Annie Smart. Laudably, it also features historians working at different career stages, from doctoral student to full professor. The anthology’s clear strength, however, is in how it prompts readers to acknowledge the value of historical perspectives and narratives that identify artistry as the product of labor, artists and spectators as laborers, and the theatrical past as a site to reflect on cultural attitudes toward labor practices and politics.

The collection’s emphasis on work, interpreted both materially and conceptually, distinguishes it from previous anthologies, such as Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater (1999) and Interrogating America through Theatre and Performance (2007). Published in Southern Illinois University Press’s Theater in the Americas series, Working in the Wings claims notions of work as “integral to the conception of self and the national imaginary” (12), thus positioning theatrical labor and its products as indicative of Americans’ self-identifications and relationships to the prevailing and continually fluctuating capitalist economy. The introduction and conclusion make strong arguments for the collection’s relevance, but its organization into thematic sections strains the cohesiveness of labor as an organizing principle. Essays gathered in the third section, “Myth, Memory, and Manifestation: The Work of the Public Mind,” by Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix, Ann-Marie Saunders, and Rosemarie Bank, are artfully researched considerations of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, the first Washington theatre, and the Columbian Exposition, respectively; they correspond less directly with other essays’ orientation toward material conditions and working practices, but they do productively “press against defined boundaries . . . to take on the work of identity and nation formation” (15). This expansive thematic approach is an advantage to those teaching courses in American theatre history who will find multiple essays to fill out syllabi, building students’ awareness of artistic work as not only culturally and historically situated, but also relevant to their own artistic labor and work identities within the national imaginary.

Many of the contributors, as noted by the editors, also bring visibility to the labor of scholarship by highlighting key artifacts and historiographic methodologies. In his entry, for example, Tom Robson examines a selection of equipment catalogs recently archived by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology; in tracking advertisements placed by scenic studios in the catalogs, Robson provides persuasive evidence of significant shifts in scenic artistry and the working conditions of theatre technicians during the late nineteenth century. Sara Freeman uses firsthand interviews to uncover gendered divisions of labor in practices of theatrical collaboration in her essay on Les Waters and Annie Smart, wrenching open the “collaboration as marriage” metaphor by observing the married couple’s public relationship as director/designer alongside their private partnership as spouses and parents. In “African American Waiters and Cakewalk Contests in Florida East Coast Resorts of the Gilded Age,” Jerry Dickey draws together a necessarily diverse archive to recover the work/performances of his laboring subjects, from films housed in the Library of Congress to...


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